Time makes an amazingly complex contribution to fencing. We typically think of time in two ways, available time left in the bout, and the artificial construct of tempo. But there is more, much more, for you to master about time across the spectrum of technique, tactics, and strategy.
First we have to understand that there are two times in fencing, real and conventional. Real time is the measurement of minutes, seconds, and milliseconds as they actually happen on the clock or timer.
Conventional time is time that we have created and agreed to as fencers – but that is not real. Tempo is the first version of this – one tempo equals the time required to complete a simple action. It can be one simple offensive blade action, defensive blade action, counteroffensive blade action, or footwork. One can have two of one during the single tempo of another – for example a one-two executed with a lunge is two blade tempos during one footwork tempo. Referees in foil and sabre do not look at this subdivision; for them reality is one type of tempo during each action. However, for you as a fencer, it is very important to understand that proper sequencing of your actions may depend on how you integrate foot and blade tempos.
However, a recent article by Sydney Sabre Centre highlights that referees now, at least in sabre, and probably in foil, view actions in terms of intent and execution. This seems to suggest that it is possible to stretch tempos to the point at which intent is shown versus the time period of the simple action. And we see the first manifestation of that in the rules. An attack by advance lunge, clearly two footwork tempos, is a one tempo action, expandable to the point at which the referee now believes he understands your intent to execute the advance lunge. This has led to the idea that the fencer in pursuit cannot be effectively counterattacked as long as he or she finishes with a lunge against any counterattack into what used to be considered preparation, but is now a seamless manifestation of intent. It permits the referee to apply other criteria to tempo, such as the fencer with the longest advance lunge off the line has the greatest intent, and hence the right of way, the expansion of the advance lunge as one tempo into the two advance lunge as one tempo in sabre, etc. Conventional time is thus a moving target, which can be and is interpreted by referees in a variety of idiosyncratic ways.
Real time is more reassuring. It may expand or contract in your mind, but it is reliably actual (generally, the debacle of the semi-final of women’s individual epee in the London Olympics notwithstanding). It applies within tempo and within the bout. First, let us look at within tempo. There has always been a provision in the rules that a counterattack can succeed if it is executed in a short enough period of real time to arrive after the start of an attack but before the start of the final tempo of blade action of a compound attack. In today’s environment this is an almost impossible task against an opponent who executes a two tempo blade action correctly. However, in a previous blog post, I introduced the concept of the in-between, the time between the start and end of one tempo. An advanced parry-riposte or a time hit operates in this period, and effectively inserts a half-tempo into the one tempo of the opponent.
Real time in sabre and epee become important factors in the tactical choice of technique due to lock-out times. Lock-out makes the counterattack possible in sabre (170 milliseconds), and very useful in epee (1/25th of a second or 40 milliseconds). In sabre, if you counterattack, that counterattack must be timed to land more than 170 milliseconds before the attack lands – achieve that, and the scoring machine locks out the original attack so that only your light shows on the scoring machine. In actuality, this requires either long arms and a very fast retreat after the stop cut or point lands, or an action to hamper the opponent’s attack so that it is delayed in landing. The close out or very fast parry-riposte denying the line to the attacker fills the bill.
Epee is more complicated. Now your choice as to how to use real time in the counterattack depends on the tactical situation. You have an 80 millisecond window (you hit less than 40 milliseconds before the opponent or up to 40 seconds after to have a double touch). If you are in the pool or down in a direct elimination, you want to use this sparingly, preferably with a body withdrawal or a hampering action to ensure one light. If you are ahead in the direct elimination, it may be worthwhile to execute the stop with a lunge or step in to ensure the double hit.
Time also governs the bout – 3 minutes of fencing time for the pool bout, or two or three 3 minute periods with one minute intervals between them in the direct elimination, unless you are a sabre fencer (fence to 8 or 5 touches, for veterans or Y10, with a 1 minute interval). The one minute interval and the short interval between “halt” and “Fence” are important – have a standard drill for how you will use this time to adjust your bout plan for the realities of the current bout. Also important is the 2 minutes you are allowed between consecutive bouts (for example, where the bout order is compressed to double strip a pool) – insist on the 2 minutes, use it to rehydrate, breathe deeply, relax and clear the mind, and refocus on the plan for the pool and how you will fence the next bout.
Within the time period for the pool bout, the last minute, the last 30 seconds, the last 15 seconds, and the last 5 seconds are critical time periods. If you are behind you have to have a plan for how to use this time to close the gap and win or close the gap to get the best indicators you can out of a loss. At one minute you can come from 0 to win, not easy, but possible. The number of possible touches shrinks to perhaps two or three at 30 seconds, one or two at 15 seconds, and one at 5 seconds. If you are ahead, you have to have a plan to finish quickly (preferable), finish safely (good), or prevent the opponent from finishing with a win while accepting a tied score at the end of regular time.
The game in the one minute overtime also depends on time. Now your objective is to get the deciding touch (if you do not have priority) or to prevent the deciding touch (if you do have priority). One minute to score one touch is a long time, and a lot can go wrong. If you have a decisive advantage psychologically and a technical advantage over the opponent, an early touch saves you energy. If you and your opponent are evenly matched, the time allows you to look for and seize upon an error in timing, movement direction, or technique. What you absolutely do not want to have happen is for time to run out with the other fencer having the priority. Even a low probability, high risk action is preferable at 10 to 5 seconds to loosing when time runs out.
And then there is non-combativity, a topic for another day …